When Jeremy Irons went to see the Almeida Theatre’s revival of Ibsen's classic Ghosts in 2014, he expected a lot from the production that won two Olivier Awards, one for Best Revival and Best Actress for Lesley Manville. He was duly impressed but could not have guessed he would be working with Manville and her director, Richard Eyre, just a few years later on Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It premiered in 2016 at Bristol Old Vic, where it received sterling reviews, precipitating a hop across the pond to the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month and now the Wallis in Beverly Hills, where it runs June 8 through July 1.
Irons stars as James Tyrone, an alcoholic faded matinee idol who squandered a potentially stellar acting career playing the same cheap commercial role over and over for a quick buck. In doing so, he compromised what he loves for the false security of cash.
“In the earlier days, it still happens, but not so much now, you just never knew when you were next going to work, how much you were going to earn and if you could pay your bills. And I think that’s at the base of any actor,” Irons tells L.A. Weekly about parallels between his character and his own life.
In real life, Irons is an aging matinee idol (though not an alcoholic) and is married to actor Sinead Cusack; they have two sons, Max, an actor, and Sam, a photographer. In Long Day’s Journey, James is married to Mary (Manville), who was lured from the convent by his charisma and glamour, forgoing a burgeoning career as a concert pianist to marry him. They have two sons, Jamie (Rory Keenan), also an alcoholic and aspiring actor, and Edmund (Matthew Beard), a writer with tuberculosis.
“When you’re doing a play you use all the experience you have in life with your own children. It’s all part of what you draw on,” Irons says, explaining his process in portraying an actor with a capital A, at constant battle with his sons. “Of course, I’m not an 'actor' in that way. I don’t have an actor’s persona. I don’t look at externals when I’m creating. I allow the externals to develop through what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling.”
In the play, Edmund’s problematic birth led to his mother’s first dose of morphine, a substance she continues to struggle with decades later, occasionally slipping upstairs to “fix her hair.” Sometimes, when alone, she curses the day he was born, though she loves him dearly.
“Of course, Mary is oblivious to other people a lot of the time while I’m onstage,” Manville tells L.A. Weekly. How did she remained grounded while portraying someone so untethered? To prepare for the role, Manville talked to doctors about the characteristics of addiction and its physiological traits. “I can’t be so absorbed playing this morphine-addicted woman. It’s always a balance whenever you’re doing a play, fulfilling the character and fulfilling the practical needs of doing the performance.”
As you might imagine, a play like Long Day’s Journey, awash with liquor, morphine and consumption, unleashes caterwauling epithets that can’t be taken back. Through it all, Mary maintains a ghostlike presence, dwelling in the past, slipping further and further into the recesses of memory and morphine.
“We’re all affected by her behavior. She is the fulcrum of the play and so it’s actually quite unnerving to rehearse it, because you’re waiting for her to find her route through before you’re able to design the way you dance around it, the way you deal with it,” Irons says.
A mainstay of the London stage, Manville has recently become more familiar to movie audiences with her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for last year’s Phantom Thread. The two actors met in 1990 when Cusack co-starred with Manville in a production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.
“What he brings to my performance is he presents to me a wonderful James Tyrone who I can completely see that my character, aged 18, totally fell in love with and was attracted to,” she says of her onstage husband. “Jeremy and I, we present this couple that you can see very much the physical love and lust they had for each other, especially when they were younger.”
O’Neill modeled Tyrone after his own father, an itinerant alcoholic actor of Irish descent. As in the play, his mother took morphine to treat the pains suffered during his birth. He grew up in boarding schools in New York and Connecticut and briefly attended Princeton but, in a popular but unverified account, was thrown out for throwing a beer bottle through the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson, the future president.
Spending an extended time at sea in his early years, O’Neill became an alcoholic. Upon his return, he fought off tuberculosis and dedicated his life to playwriting, becoming an active member of the Greenwich Village arts scene and winning a Pulitzer Prize for his first play, Beyond the Horizon, in 1920.
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His fourth and final Pulitzer recognized Long Day’s Journey into Night. Written in 1941, it was one of O’Neill’s last plays before his death in 1953, but wasn’t performed on Broadway until 1956. Fredric March won a Tony for his performance as Tyrone, and Jason Robards played Jamie, a role he reprised for the classic 1962 film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary and Ralph Richardson as Tyrone.
“I hope it won’t be the last play I do. I couldn’t see it happening,” Irons says of his experience returning to the stage. He says he's currently looking forward to playing Alfred the butler again, opposite Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne in The Batman. “It’s been very energizing doing this play, getting back to a really dense, thick plot in a play with this soaring dialogue.”
Manville is fielding more calls from Hollywood on account of her Oscar nomination, and is happy to consider offers, but remains scrupulous about protecting her legacy. “Long Day’s Journey, for me, is the greatest piece of writing that I have ever performed,” she says of a career steeped in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg. “Of all these plays, Long Day’s Journey stands out for me as the most epic.”
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; June 8-July 1; (310) 716-4000, thewallis.org/longdays.